Perfect Trip: Magnetawan River

The best white water river canoe trip no-one is talking about.

When our luggage starts floating over the gunwales of our canoe, I know we’re sunk. The Thirty Dollar rapids on the Lower Magnetawan River are a gnarly set in the spring, complete with holes, rock obstacles, and enough pushy whitewater to completely take control of your canoe.

Two paddlers in water-filled canoe
If you're still upright, does it count? Debatable. 

It was the last wave in the set that completely swamped us. Once the boat was full of water, keeping it upright was tricky. It’s like paddling a full bath tub; each time we leaned in either direction, the sloshing water in the boat went the opposite way, taking more luggage with it. And try as we might, we eventually lost it and capsized.

The prophecy I’d been hearing for the past few days came true: “Everyone swims on the Magnetawan.”

Two paddlers in whitewater beside overturned yellow canoe
Everyone swims on the Magnetawan. Here's proof.

Thankfully, our guides are fully prepared for the little disaster, and they’re waiting downstream to collect people, gear and canoes. Of the six canoes paddling the set, not a single one remains upright. But with drysuits and the proper gear, even swimming in this cold spring runoff is no big deal. In fact, it’s a damn good time.

Two overturned yellow canoes with paddlers swimming along side in river rapids
More proof everyone swims. 

Our group had put in a few days earlier and a few kilometres upstream at Wahwashkesh Lake. From there it was a five-day paddle to our cars parked at the River Haven Resort. Flowing from Magnetawan Lake inside Algonquin Provincial Park, the Magnetawan River flows 175 km downhill to Georgian Bay, where it lets out at Britt on the Byng Inlet. It loses 65 meters of elevation along the way, creating lots of rapids with names like Canal Rapids, Three Snye Rapids, and Thirty Dollar Rapids, ranging from class I to class III. We’re only doing the lower section, but if you start at Ahmic Lake you can paddle the Upper Magnetawan too and make it an eight-day trip. 

Beautiful waterfalls surrounded by bedrock and trees
The beautiful waterfalls on the Lower Magnetawan.

On our third night we camp in a spectacular area only reachable by boat; an area where the river breaks into several braids, each creating separate waterfalls, before joining together again. It’s reminiscent of some Lord of the Rings scene, and it is a lovely spot to while away the rest of a day on the river.

This is a yearly Black Feather trip, taking place in the beginning of the paddling season in late May. It’s the only time the water levels are high enough to paddle many of the sections and thankfully, the black flies and mosquitoes aren’t quite yet biting. We have three guides with our group, including a father and daughter team, a retired couple, a younger couple, and two single, retired men.

Father and Daughter paddling yellow canoe in big rapids
A father and daughter team enjoying some quality bonding time. 

But it’s without a doubt Christopher Hope who is the real star of the trip. At 80 years young, he’s just getting into whitewater paddling. He considers this trip a training run for his upcoming trip to the Nahanni River. He’s an exceptional man, but a very junior paddler who, much to the chagrin of the guides sharing his boat, insists on paddling in the stern. “Show me some class V rapids! I want to swim them,” he’d say. “It’s the only way to learn.”And while we portaged around the bigger stuff, Christopher got plenty of practice swimming class III rapids. And he always emerged with a huge smile on his face.

Aerial view of campsite on island
Our last camp site before getting back to civilization. 

After five days and several swims on the Magnetawan, I’m humbled. I’ve paddled large sections of the Nahanni and several other rivers in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon and never swam any of them. I expected this Ontario river to be much the same—lots of hype, but actually quite a simple paddle. Boy, was I wrong.

The kids these days (in this case, our 19- and 20-year-old guides), use the word savage any time they burn one of their friends. The expression “Oh, that was savage,” follows any comment that roasts one of the other guides. And after five days on the Magnetawan, that’s how I feel about the river. It’s savage. With sets of rapids too dangerous to paddle, others are nearly guaranteed to send the best of paddlers swimming. The Magnetawan is indeed a perfect river to train on; it’s close to the GTA, it’s an inexpensive trip and if going for a swim concerns you, you’ll definitely get over that fear. Like my guides kept telling me, “Everyone swims on the Magnetawan.”

PLAN YOUR TRIP NOW

In late May, Black Feather offers back-to-back guided, fully outfitted white water canoe trips on the Magnetawan River. The 3-day trip starts in Ahmic Lake and ends at Wahwashkesh Lake where the 5-day trip begins. You can do one or both of the trips.   

Paddlers should be confident intermediate to advanced canoeists looking for some spring excitement. 

  • 3-Day Upper Magnetawan River Guided Canoe Trip
    In early Spring, the melting snows flood the ‘Mag’ and makes the route very challenging. This 3-day guided white water canoe trip puts in at Ahmic Lake and travels 30 km west to Wahwashkesh Lake navigating Class I to III rapids.
     
  • 5-day Lower Magnetawan River Guided Canoe Trip
    In late May, you can explore the Lower Magnetawan River with Black Feather. This five-day guided white water canoe trip puts in at Wahwashkesh Lake and travels towards Georgian Bay. The river drops over 65 metres in a series of rock rapids – with Class 1 to Class III runs. The focus of the trips is on learning to improve your whitewater skills. 

MORE ABOUT THE MAGNETAWAN RIVER

Where Does the Magnetawan River Start and End?

The Magnetawan River is a 175 km long river in the Parry Sound District. It flows from its source of Magnetawan Lake inside Algonquin Provincial Park and empties into Georgian Bay at the community of Britt on Byng Inlet. It is a non-operating Provincial Park.

What kind of fish are in the Magnetawan River?

Depending on where you are on the river, you will find pickerel (walleye), northern pike, muskie, small and large mouth bass, rock bass, perch, catfish, whitefish, brook trout and lots of pannies.

Magnetawan River Canoe Route Loop

The Magnetawan River Loop is included as one of the Top 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario book by Kevin Callan. He claims “it is a perfect novice trip except for a handful of long portages that paddlers will find difficult”.

The loop has three possible access points: Naiscoot Lake or Harris Lake, both off Hwy 69 and Wahwashkesh Lake, off Hwy 124 and 520. The loop is 80 km long and has 14 portages. Kevin estimates a travel time of 3 to 4 days. Read a first hand report about paddling the Magnetawan River Loop

Magnetawan River Canoe Route Map

The Ministry of Natural Resources has produced a canoe route pamphlet: Magnetawan River Canoe Route. The Topographic Maps needed for the above loop are: 41 H/9 and 41 H/16. The Canadian Canoe Routes website has a variety of information on Magnetawan River canoe routes and maps.

Magnetawan River Rafting

The Magnetewan River explodes out of Kneophli Falls in the spring run-off. This creates an exciting early spring rafting experience offering high volume, technical class III-IV whitewater.

Esprit Whitewater offer guided and fully outfitted day rafting trips in early May.  Stay locally at Quiet Bay Log Motel on Ahmic Lake.

About Colin Field

Colin is an award-winning photographer and writer, specializing in outdoor travel and adventure. He is the editor-at-large with Mountain Life Magazine. He is based in Collingwood, Ontario. 

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